Tag Archives: Art

CAPSULE: FRANCOFONIA (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: An experimental documentary on the Louvre, with dramatic recreations of the Nazi takeover and Napoleon showing up in the museum after hours.

Srill from Fancofonia (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This stream-of-consciousness companion piece to Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov‘s amazing one-shot exploration of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, is too messy with too many wild hairs. Ultimately, it seems to be more about Sokurov’s own artistic whims and impulses than it is about the Louvre.

COMMENTS: As the opening credits scroll, we hear director Sokurov take (scripted) phone calls regarding post-production work on his latest movie (presumably Francofonia itself). The second caller (“Captain Dirk,” who we’ll meet again later) asks about the director’s progress and he confesses “I don’t think the film is successful.”

I generally agree, although any movie that spotlights so many masterpieces from the Louvre can’t be a complete failure. Sokurov is a true connoisseur of European art (as seen in Russian Ark) and has a legitimate love for the Louvre, but this documentary/narrative hybrid piece shows no real organization or purpose. It’s like a spur-of-the-moment whirlwind trip to a museum. Partly, Sokurov wants to give an account of how deputy Louvre director Jacques Joujard hid the museum’s treasures from the Nazis ahead of the occupation of Paris in 1940, with the silent blessing of Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, the cultured professor Hitler had appointed as “caretaker” of French cultural treasures. This potentially interesting story is told with both archival footage and recreations using actors. But Sokurov masks his straightforward tale with multiple digressions: his own poeticized musings on European culture; a mysterious character who runs around the darkened Louvre in a gown saying “liberté, égalité, fraternité”; the ghost of Napoleon (who shows up to point out his own portraits); Sokurov’s fanciful Skype discussions with the aforementioned Captain Dirk, who’s carrying a load of museum-bound historical treasures on a freighter imperiled by rough seas; and so on.

Francofonia suffers by comparison with Russian Ark, whose one-take, two-character gimmick imposed structure and discipline on the film while still allowing Sokurov to indulge his imagination. Sokurov is intelligent, and his a love for museums and for the preservation of European high culture comes across, but Francofonia is so scattershot that his passion is dissipated. A conventional documentary would hit at least as hard: indeed, moments when the camera merely pans over the straining figures of “The Raft of the Medusa,” or passes each curl in an Assyrian lamassu’s beard, or zooms in so we can see the intimate cracks in the “Mona Lisa”‘s aging canvas, are the film’s strongest sights.

Sokurov says he wants to create cinematic tributes to Madrid’s Prado and London’s British Museum next. I hope he finds a more interesting angle from which to film these projects than he did for his Louvre piece.

The Music Box Francofonia DVD or Blu-ray includes two substantial extras, each about an hour long: the making of documentary “Visitors to the Louvre” and “The Man Who Saved the Louvre,” a conventional documentary (which the DVD refers to as a “play”) on Jacques Joujard.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sometimes the bizarre can illuminate the poignant, sometimes it distracts. In ‘Francofonia’ it most definitely distracts… terribly over-directed and seems strange just for the sake of being strange.”–Tom Long, Detroit Free Press (contemporaneous)

SATURDAY SHORT: HUGH THE HUNTER (2015)

“This is the tale of Hugh the Hunter, and the remarkable things he sees… And that see him.” Hugh the Hunter (2015) is a not-so-typical hunting story inspired by and starring artist Hugh Hayden. When an artist’s work is made into live-action, it often lacks plot to keep it interesting. Under the direction of Zachary Heinzerling, this short is an exception.

LIST CANDIDATE: RUSSIAN ARK (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksandr Sokurov

FEATURING: Sergey Dreyden, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: In one take, a ghostlike figure wanders through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, watching re-enactments of Russian history and debating art and culture with a French aristocrat.

Still from Russian Ark (2002)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: As the longest unbroken take in the history of cinema, Russian Ark is somewhat experimental in form, and with its intermingling of various eras of Russian history inside the Hermitage museum, it is somewhat surreal in content. Viewed simply as tour de force filmmaking, it’s worth seeing for the curious and cultured, and a must-see for film school types. The film’s only drawback is that its high art, highly Russophilic preoccupations make it unavoidably stuffy at times, and risk limiting its appeal to the tea-and-crumpets (er, samovar-and-beluga?) crowd.

COMMENTS: Who is the main character of Russian Ark? Ghost? Amnesiac time traveler? Dreamer? Or just a metaphorical representative of the Russian spirit? The speaker through whose eyes we watch Russian Ark remembers some vague accident, but opens his eyes to see women in furs and feathered headdresses emerging from a carriage; accompanied by men in formal scarlet military uniforms, he judges their fashions to be from the 1800s. He’s swept along with the guests from a snowy courtyard through a wooden door; he eventually deduces he is the Winter Palace section of the Hermitage, the ancient home of the Czars that was turned into the world’s largest art museum. No can see or hear him until he encounters an older man in black, who is equally lost in time and space; this is the Marquis, who will be his companion through the rest of his odyssey through the Hermitage.

That journey involves the pair passing through the various rooms of the museum, some of which are occupied by today’s art patrons, and some by ghosts from prior ages, including Peter the Great, Anastasia, and Catherine the Great (who is looking for a chamberpot). Curiously, there is little focus on the individual works of art; the camera rarely gives the paintings and statuary more than a passing glance, instead maintaining a constant wide-angle view of each sprawling, packed chamber. We watch courtly episodes from history and eavesdrop on some conversations, but the meat of the movie are the conversations between the European Marquis and the modern Russian through whose eyes we see the museum. Some of their dialogue is absurd, but much of it is self-reflective hand-wringing over the state of Russian culture. Russians come off as having a bit of an inferiority complex towards Europe. The Marquis sneers that Russians are great copyists in the fine arts, but produce nothing original; all the great works in the museum come from the French, the Italians, or others. He is disdainful towards the Russian people, yet he is slowly won over by the final scene, a massive Czarist ball where he joins in a mazurka with the ghosts of past maidens. Overcome with nostalgia for the lovely aristocratic past, the Marquis decides to stay behind at the phantasmagorical ballet. His decision validates the Ark’s role in preserving Western culture, but the Russian chooses to go on without him, headed towards an unknown destiny. Although we get a few clues as to the man behind the point-of-view’s identity, it isn’t really important. Russian Ark‘s main character is actually the Hermitage.

Russian Ark was shot in a single 87-minute take with a digital camera that followed the characters through thirty-three rooms of the Winter Palace. The cast included over 2,000 extras, and a full orchestra, all of whom had to be costumed and choreographed. Rehearsals lasted for months before the shot was attempted. Depending on which source you believe, the take was flawlessly executed on either the third or the fourth attempt. (To make things slightly easier, the sound was recorded later). Only one day was allocated to actual filming.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. ‘Russian Ark’ spins a daydream made of centuries.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Jenn, who insightfully suggested that it was “perhaps artsy instead of weird” but added “[i]t is super pretty and certainly unusual and dreamy.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

366 UNDERGROUND: WELCOME TO NOWHERE (BULLET HOLE ROAD)

Watch Welcome to Nowhere (Bullet Hole Road) free at NoBudge until Oct. 18.

DIRECTED BY: William Cusick

FEATURING: Brian Greer, Nick Bixby, Lorraine Mattox, Tina Balthazar, Cara Francis, Peter Blomquist, Stacey Collins, Kevin Gebhard, Stephanie Silver

PLOT: As described in the press kit: “a surrealistic take on the American Road Story, this experimental film follows the overlapping encounters of five strangers as they struggle to exist in the desert of the American West.”

still-of-lorraine-mattox-in-welcome-to-nowhere-(bullet-hole-road)

COMMENTS:  As mentioned above, Welcome to Nowhere is an Experimental Film—there’s not so much a linear story that’s presented here as a collection of tropes associated with the road movie and the American West. There’s the doomed couple (are they adulterers?) meeting miserably in motel rooms and throwing furtive glances at each other; loners and psychos; hookers waiting for johns (or dead in motel rooms), and state troopers with mirrored sunglasses.

As such, one can construct scenarios from the bits and pieces presented, and those looking for an overall plot will be disappointed. The emphasis is on atmosphere, which Nowehere has in abundance. And at under an hour, doesn’t wear itself out. It’s a tone poem, and the result is very refreshing, if the viewer is open to the experience. The film is based on a performance piece by the theater company Temporary Distortion.

As the filmmakers themselves pontificate, “In a series of warped, image-driven episodes, the archetypes of the American Road Story are deconstructed in action, dialogue, intent and ultimately meaning…these representations of the American promise of freedom and travel on the open road disintegrate into paradoxical fantasies of improbable escapism, perverse sexuality and futile violence.” It’s surreal, like a fever dream of a road movie enthusiast.

You can expect to find Welcome to Nowhere popping up in film festivals over the next few months. It will make its online premiere on September 17 at NoBudge.com where it will stream for a month only.

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still-of-peter-blomquist-in-welcome-to-nowhere-(bullet-hole-road)

GAUGUIN: THE FULL STORY. A FILM BY WALDEMAR JANUSZCZAK (2003)

“Oh, I hate that man. He left his wife and children, was cruel to Van Gogh, and bedded down all those Tahitian girls. I just cannot look at his paintings.” This is a simple-minded, uninformed, dull, and predictable comment that I have little patience or tolerance for, and I have heard it countless times whenever I list Paul Gauguin among the painters I identify with aesthetically. Several films have been made about about Gauguin, yet none of them have caught his essence, at least until this documentary by Waldemar Januszczak.  It is not a perfect film, but Gauguin is vividly present in it.

Donald Sutherland starred as Gauguin in the 1986 film Oviri, directed by Henning Carlson.  In that film, the banker Gauguin and his wife, Matte, are on a Sunday horse and carriage ride with his co-workers and their wives. The financiers engage in shop talk while Gauguin broods.  Finally, the frustrated painter taps the carriage driver on the shoulder and tells him to stop.  Gauguin looks at his wife and peers and says, “You are my jailers.”  With that, he jumps out of the carriage and walks off to find his paradise.  A nice story but one that is a total fiction, buying into the painter’s mythology.

In actuality, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), contrary to the repeated myths, was not a millionaire banker.  He was a successful stock broker.  He did not quit his job.  The stock market crashed and he lost his job.  Gauguin, who had been a “Sunday” painter for years, felt that this was reason enough to pursue painting full time, something he had been longing to do.  It was with this that his wife left him.  Gauguin did not desert his wife and five children.  His wife rejected him after he lost his income as a stockbroker.

Still from Gauguin: The Full StoryArt critic Waldemar Januszczak attempts to set the record straight.  “What’s to like about this man?,” Januszczak asks.  “First of all, there is the art, which needs no defense.  Gauguin painted some of the world’s most alluring woman and put them into several of the world’s most gorgeous pictures, but what I really like about him is that he did it for big and noble reasons.”  And then, most aptly, he says, “There is always more to a Gauguin than meets the eye.”  Januszczak covers Continue reading GAUGUIN: THE FULL STORY. A FILM BY WALDEMAR JANUSZCZAK (2003)

CAPSULE: CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (2010)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: (narration)

PLOT: Granted unprecedented access, Werner Herzog takes his camera crew into the Chauvet

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

caves of Southern France to capture images of the oldest artwork ever discovered—Cro-Magnon paintings that date back approximately 30,000 years.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s essentially a very sober and serious documentary on an important subject, with the presence (and odd musings) of ultra-eccentric director Werner Herzog supplying the only weird connection.

COMMENTS:  There are two things to keep in mind about Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  One is that those of us who missed it in its theatrical run will probably never get the opportunity to experience the film as it was intended to be seen.  Cave was originally shot in 3D, and for maybe the first time in film history, there was actually a reason to access that third dimension.  The Chauvet paintings were drawn on rocky walls, and the artists incorporated the bulges and ripples into their sketches (Herzog comments on how, in flickering torchlight, the horses and lions drawn on the craggy walls might appear to move—comparing the cave itself to a sort of proto-cinema).  The second thing to keep in mind is that this is an Important work; which is not to say that it’s not also Interesting, just that Herzog takes his responsibility to document these previously unseen caverns very seriously, and if it comes down to a choice between being Interesting or Important, he errs towards the latter.  The Chauvet caves, which were hidden by a rockslide and preserved away from prying eyes for millennia before being accidentally discovered by spelunkers in 1994, are considered of such scientific and historical importance that only a small number of the world’s top scientists had previously been granted access. The crew was forced to film under restrictive conditions: they were only allowed access for a few hours each day, were confined to a two foot metal walkway so as not to disturb any of the primeval footprints or animal skulls littering the cavern floors, and could only use handheld cameras and low-heat lighting elements that they could carry with them.  Since there are only a few painted panels of interest to amateurs, Herzog fills up the running time with interviews with scientists who gave us background on the caves and on Paleolithic man.  While he does pick a few colorful characters to interrogate—most notably a guy who dresses in deerskin and serenades us with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” piped on a vulture-bone flute—these scarce quirky digressions aren’t as gonzo as some reports might have you believe.  The focus remains on the artwork.  Herzog passionately believes that when we look at these mysterious scrawlings of battling rhinos and half-buffalo women we are peeking at the first stirrings of the human soul, though through a cloudy window.  In the quiet finale the camera lingers over the detailed panels depicting cave lions and horses, remarkably rendered figures etched one on top of the other to suggest movement, while Ernst Reijseger’s mystical score of cellos, flutes and a droning choir plays an imaginary primordial liturgy.  It’s an intense tribute, and even a little trippy.  Of course, it wouldn’t be a Herzog film without at least one totally incomprehensible moment.  This time it occurs in a head-scratching epilogue.  After finishing his tour of the cave, Herzog takes a trip to a nearby experimental biosphere where a tropical climate has been created using heated water from a nearby nuclear reactor.  There, he films some albino alligators and proclaims them our doppelgängers, wondering how they would react to the caves.  It’s an obscure personal metaphor that provokes an almost universal response: “huh”?  But perhaps it’s the best way to end the documentary: we can’t completely understand what Cave‘s paintings meant to artists separated from us by 30,000 years of evolution any more than we can completely understand the peculiar vision of Werner Herzog.

Herzog made two documentaries screened in the U.S. this year, neither of which have been shortlisted for Academy Awards.  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which certainly deserved a nomination, was ruled ineligible because it received a limited screening in 2010.  His other film, Into the Abyss, concerned interviews with three unrepentant Texas death row inmates, did not make the shortlist of fifteen features despite excellent reviews.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a journey to prehistory that’s simultaneously wondrous and tedious, profound and completely nuts — which is to say, quintessential Herzog.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, National Public Radio (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: PEPPERMINTA [2009]

DIRECTED BY: Pipilotti Rist

FEATURING: Ewelina Guzik, Sven Pippig, Sabine Timoteo, Elisabeth Orth
Still from Pepperminta (2009)

PLOT: A whimsical young woman brimming with optimism moves breezily through her hometown in Switzerland, picking up new friends Werwen (Sven Pippig)—a sickly momma’s boy—and Edna (Sabine Timoteo)—a cross-dressing gardener—along the way.  The trio’s mission is to teach others to live without fear through experimental color hypnosis.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Pepperminta is a creative, experimental, singular film that defies standard classification.  It is at once funny, thought-provoking, insightful, fanciful, sexual, and wistful; it contains memorable visuals, bizarre characters, impromptu musical numbers, and flashes of complete fantasy.  It’s wonderfully weird, to be sure, but its sentimentality and naive perspective can be cloying and alienating for some audiences.

COMMENTS: Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist is known for saturated colors and themes of harmony and sensuality in her short works.  Pepperminta marks her first foray into feature-length narrative film, allowing her to expand upon these concepts in a more accessible manner.  Inspired by Pippi Longstocking, the story is a fantastical urban adventure set in a magical realist universe that’s open to Utopian ideas, and the central character is unflappable in her quest to bring joy, beauty, and strength to everyone she meets.  Pepperminta transforms the souls of those she chooses to be a part of her mission, healing them with flowers, touch, music, and contagious confidence.  She believes that through certain combinations of color a person’s outlook can be altered, and demonstrates this in several wacky encounters.

Pepperminta is primarily driven by its mysterious but likable characters.  The title character is quick-to-smile, red-haired, freckled, and feels completely at ease in her own body.  She wins others over to her side with unshakable kindness, even if her weirdness confuses most people at first.  Werwen is shy,  middle-aged, and allergic to everything; he easily falls in love with Pepperminta, most likely because she’s the first girl with whom he’s interacted.  With her help he conquers his fear of the outside world bred by his overprotective mother.  Edna is taciturn and serious-minded, slowly released from her hard outer shell as she opens herself up to her new friends, even tapping into the magical aspects of Pepperminta’s personality. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: PEPPERMINTA [2009]

CAPSULE: LITTLE ASHES (2008)

DIRECTED BY:  Paul Morrison

FEATURING:  Javier Beltrán,

PLOT:  In Madrid in the 1920s, with Dadaism in full flourish and Surrealism in its infancy,

Still from Little Ashes (2008)

soon-to-be-famous poet Federico García Lorca flirts with soon-to-be-famous painter Salvador Dalí while soon-to-be-famous director Luis Buñuel hangs around.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subject is Surrealism, but its style is conventional historical romance.

COMMENTS:  A supposed collegiate love affair, supposedly unconsummated, between stuffy poet Lorca and flamboyant painter Dalí is the subject of this pleasantly lensed and generally competent costume affair.  Spanish society in the 1920s is socially repressive (although the three idealists have no clue how much worse it will get in a few years with Franco’s arrival), and the budding geniuses yearn to upset the established order.  Beltrán imbues Lorca with a sense of dignity, although his thick accent is frequently a practical impediment for the viewer.  Pattison makes for a distractingly pretty Dalí; his failure to capture the spirit of the eccentric painter is probably more the failing of the simplistic script.  Buñuel is an underdeveloped third wheel and utility player: a homophobe when the story calls for a homophobe, a foil when it needs a foil, a mediator when it requires a mediator.  We hear bits of Lorca’s poetry, get glimpses of Dalí’s canvases, and see the shocking bits from Un Chien Andalou (1929), but we get no real sense of what motivates these men as artists.  Though Beltrán shows suitable young romantic torment when he’s rejected, it’s hard to credit the suggestion that this awkward fling would have made enough of a impact on either man to influence their future art, much less be a driving force.  Dalí postures and lectures about the need to “go further” and “go beyond” in art; not only do we not see concrete examples of what he means, but there’s irony in the fact that the filmmakers don’t heed his advice.  Other than one mental montage where Lorca mixes up impressions of a bullfight he’s watching with jealous fantasies of Salvador and Luis living it up in Paris, and an odd pseudo-ménage à trois that may make some giggle, the film is extremely conventional and predictable in its approach.  These are fascinating men in a fascinating time, so the decision to put the overwhelming focus of the film on a bit of gossip about who did or didn’t sleep with whom, while humble, is a let down.

I can’t help but be amused by the thought of the few tween Twilight fans, showing up to see vampire heartthrob Pattison in action, getting slapped in the face by the eyeball slitting scene from Un Chien Andalou.   It still makes me squirm, and it must seem incredibly weird, random and shocking—particularly in this context—to anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is an open-hearted tribute to three great iconoclasts, whose response to its piety and sincerity would, most likely, have been ruthless and obscene mockery.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times